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  • Will Kingston-Cox

‘Into the endgame’: Putin’s escalation will either make or break his special military operation


On Wednesday 21 September, Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a rare televised address to his people – the first since his declaration of a “special military operation” back in February. His speech, which signified a real escalation in Russia’s war efforts, outlined the ‘partial mobilisation’ of 300,000 reserve troops to repel Ukraine’s significant counteroffensives in recent weeks, as well as announcing annexation referenda in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.

Crucially, Putin warned the West that he was willing and ready to use nuclear weapons to defend the sovereignty of Russian territory: “if there is a threat to the territorial integrity of our country...we will certainly use all the means available to us – and I’m not bluffing.” The ramifications of such an intensification of both Russian rhetoric and policy is seismic, and most certainly brings Putin’s special military operation into the endgame.

To save face, amidst a visibly faltering campaign in Ukraine, Putin is going for broke. This escalation will either make or break his special military operation. Facing rampant domestic dissidence and international opposition, Putin will know he is entering the last chance saloon.

The political rationale behind Putin’s escalation is clear. Russia desperately needs to reverse the momentum of Kyiv’s counteroffensives. In promising the deployment of nuclear weapons to ‘liberate’ southern and eastern Ukraine if necessary, Putin is attempting to blackmail Kyiv into surrender. But it also implies the notion that the Kremlin expects partial mobilisation to be incapable of achieving its strategic goals alone.

To exact this ‘nuclear blackmail’, Russia is enforcing “sham” referenda across the four occupied territories of Ukraine from 23 to 27 September. These ‘plebiscites’ are almost identical to those in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. By staging annexation referenda, the Kremlin will now consider the occupied territories of Ukraine as a part of the Russian Federation. In this view, Moscow will deem any Ukrainian or Western military action in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, or Zaporizhzhia, as a violation of its own territorial sovereignty, warranting self-defence by any means necessary – i.e nuclear means.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian security council, warned that any “encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows [the usage of] all the forces of self-defence". More ominously, Margarita Simonyan, head of Russia Today, declared that “this week marks the eve of [Russia’s] imminent victory of a nuclear war.” In essence, the annexation of Ukrainian land into the Russian Federation enables the Kremlin to justify the usage of nuclear weapons to see out the special military operation to their desired ends.

This raises the obvious question: will Putin actually use nuclear weapons? The answer depends on the effectiveness of partial mobilisation. As Ukrainian counteroffensives continue, Putin’s options dwindle and become increasingly bleak. Putin has the choice to either accept defeat in Ukraine, a humiliation that would almost certainly mark the end of his presidency, or to go for broke militarily and save face both domestically and internationally. Putin will do all he can to save his political future and maintain Russia’s position as a global power.

Franz-Stefan Gady, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, holds that as Ukraine’s military successes increase, so too does the threat that Putin will order the deployment of a tactical nuclear weapon. The partial mobilisation of 300,000 poorly trained and ill-equipped troops will not offer Putin the renewed blitzkrieg in his Ukrainian offensive that he hopes for. If anything, the mobilised reserves will offer respite to those Russian occupation forces - not enough to turn the war in Moscow’s favour.

It is likely, then, that Ukraine will continue its counteroffensive momentum pushing a desperate Putin to potentially use tactical nuclear strikes. Whether Putin is affected by the warnings of US president Joe Biden, and other Western leaders, not to resort to nuclear weapons remains to be seen.

Putin cannot afford to play the long game. Domestically, increasing frustration among Russian nationalists at the progress of the special military operation, contrasted with widespread opposition protests, both put Putin’s political future in a precarious position. A quick, definitive victory in Ukraine would not only appease the beleaguered nationalists and stop them from seeking a new leader, but it would also quell the Russian anti-war sentiment and the ensuant ‘mass exodus’ of Russian students and young professionals – akin to the ‘brain drain’ of East Germany throughout the 1950s.

Internationally, Moscow is unlikely to receive the same support provided to Ukraine by the West, as it is from China. A protracted war will always work in Ukraine’s favour, as Xi Jinping continues to take an ambivalent, oft hypocritical, position on the conflict, with the provision of little material assistance to Moscow. It is increasingly apparent that Beijing does not wish to dirty its hands over the Ukraine crisis, as it eyes up Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the momentum of the war has undoubtedly changed. To require an escalation in the Ukrainian conflict, Putin is either determined to finally see his special operation’s objectives obtained or is desperately trying to avoid succumbing to both internal and external pressures. Irrespective, a decisive outcome seems far more likely as we enter this new partially mobilised phase of Russian belligerency.

Image: Flickr/ Andrew Prophet



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